In Los Angeles as seen in movies — well, the serious ones, anyway — everything seems to be about disconnection. It’s as if the writers and directors who live there want to impress the rest of the world with the dark side of such a legendarily lightheaded city. The latest multicharacter drama to pump up the tensions between the aristocracy and the groundlings (each represented by a variety of races), Paul Haggis’ Crash enters theaters with an unusually high level of candid rhetoric and an equal level of do-gooder impulse. The movie (not to be confused with David Cronenberg’s 1996 oddity) is often very fine, and a somber yet supple film like this, coming as it does near the beginning of Stupidity Season at the movies, may strike many critics as a revelation. But don’t let yourself get carried away by the raves: Crash is solid but no masterpiece.
There are rich white people (Brendan Fraser as a district attorney, Sandra Bullock as his perpetually angry wife) and rich black people (Terrence Howard as a director, Thandie Newton as his mercurial wife). There are white cops (racist Matt Dillon, good-hearted Ryan Phillippe) and black cops (troubled detective Don Cheadle, cheerfully cynical lieutenant Keith David). There are Latinos who look like trouble but aren’t (locksmith Michael Pena, festooned with scary tattoos but actually a devoted husband and dad) and blacks who don’t look like trouble but are (Larenz Tate and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as two carjackers). There is a hot-headed Iranian store owner (Shaun Toub) and his level-headed daughter (Bahar Soomekh). Crash sets all these people bouncing off each other during the course of one unusally cold Los Angeles day and watches the racial sparks fly, just as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing did on a sidewalk-melting day in New York.
The difference between Crash and other depressed L.A. films (Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon) is that it focuses entirely on race — its tensions, its stereotypes, its misunderstandings. Crash is a tighter film than any of those. Writer/director Haggis, who also wrote Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, somehow manages to get his characters doing and saying unconscionable things while still keeping us involved in their fates. Matt Dillon’s cop, who seems at first glance a racist pig, develops shadings that help us understand him, if not excuse him. Likewise, we understand why Terrence Howard’s bourgeois director, egged on by his wife’s withering disdain of his manhood, comes close to throwing everything away when his path crosses with two of the other characters, who don’t know or care that he had a traumatic run-in with Dillon the night before.
Crash relies a little too much on coincidence for my taste. It’s as if Haggis, seeing how disconnected the characters are, set out to connect them by force, and sometimes the people seem like pawns, or placards making instructive points (see, not all Iranians are bad-tempered; not all Latinos are hoodlums). Don Cheadle has the movie’s most complexly drawn role, a worn-down detective who can’t believe his ears when a white cop (William Fichtner) wants to cover up the fact that three black cops recently shot dead by a white cop may have been corrupt. In a similar plot thread, Ryan Phillippe’s young, idealistic cop wants to report Dillon’s racist behavior and is told by his black supervisor (Keith David) to shut up about it. The interesting stuff in Crash takes place between cops of various races and backgrounds (including Cheadle’s girlfriend Jennifer Esposito, a cop of mixed Latin heritage).
The rest of the movie sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. It may be bracing to hear Miss Congeniality snarl and drop an F-bomb, but Sandra Bullock’s character feels unresolved, as does Thandie Newton’s brittle victim of Dillon’s racism. (The women in the movie get short shrift; Crash concerns itself chiefly with male torments and dilemmas. The Iranian’s wife, for instance, is played by Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Marina Sirtis, though you’d never know it, since she’s cloaked in traditional head garb and has almost no lines.) The outcome of the conflict between the Iranian store-owner and the Latino locksmith feels awfully forced, and does nothing, by the way, to dispel the stereotype of Middle Eastern men as violently uncomprehending ranters. (It also raises the question of why his daughter was worried about whether his gun had been stolen if she herself selected the bullets in it. That’ll make more sense if you see the film.) Crash has just enough powerful and delicate moments to rank it among the best of the season, but consider its competition.